Record Wildfires and Heat Sweep Across Greece, Threatening Historic Sites

Record Wildfires and Heat Sweep Across Greece, Threatening Historic Sites
Flames burn on the mountain near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometers (161 km) north of Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (Photo: Michael Pappas, AP)

More than 80 wildfires have been reported around Greece between Monday and Tuesday evening, the Greek government said Tuesday, as the country grapples with a record-breaking heat wave that is forecast to continue through this week.

On Monday, the town of Langadas in northern Greece recorded a sweltering temperature of 47.1 degrees Celsius — close to the record of the hottest temperature ever recorded in the European Union of 48 degrees Celsius, which was set in Athens in July 1977. Several other areas of the locations across the country recorded temperatures between 45.6 degrees Celsius and 46.2 degrees Celsius Monday, while Athens reached a high of 45 degrees Celsius. Temperatures are expected to reach more than 45 degrees Celsius in parts of the country this week.

The heat has contributed to a growing wildfire crisis across the eastern Mediterranean where unprecedented blazes are burning in multiple countries.

The Acropolis Is Closed as Fires Burn Nearby

Onlookers take pictures of smoke covering Athens, with the Acropolis in the background. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP, Getty Images) Onlookers take pictures of smoke covering Athens, with the Acropolis in the background. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP, Getty Images)

Due to the heat, the government decided to close several historical sites — including the famous Acropolis, home of the Parthenon — between noon and 5 p.m. local time to protect visitors. (The Acropolis is usually open for most of the day, between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) Dozens of Athenians have also been taken to local hospitals due to a combination of smoke from the fires and extreme heat. Despite the heat, the government has ordered residents to stay inside due to the public health hazard the smoke poses. If people do have to go outside, the government is recommending masks.

Hundreds of Firefighters Are Working to Contain Blazes

A man uses a water hose during a wildfire in Adames area. (Photo: Michael Varaklas, AP) A man uses a water hose during a wildfire in Adames area. (Photo: Michael Varaklas, AP)

Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes in northern Athens due to a wildfire reaching the edge of the city at the foot of Mount Parnitha, where more than 100 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Hundreds of firefighters worked throughout the night to try and contain the fire burning in the region.

A number of firefighters reportedly became trapped Tuesday evening alongside residents between two fronts of the fire moving through the Athens suburbs. Officials said strong winds are whipping up the blazes and making firefighting harder.

Fire Burns Island

Flames burn on a mountain during a wildfire near Limni village on the island of Evia. (Photo: Thodoris Nikolaou, AP) Flames burn on a mountain during a wildfire near Limni village on the island of Evia. (Photo: Thodoris Nikolaou, AP)

On the island of Evia, the second-largest of the Greek isles, a fire has already burned nearly 2,020 hectares. The blaze continued to burn out of control as of Wednesday morning. Ten villages and settlements have been ordered to evacuate the island thus far, including tourists on the coastal town of Rovies and a monastery in Damia, which houses 12 monks who are reportedly refusing to leave to protect their monastery. Firefighters are reporting that several roads on the island are no longer passable.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” the monastery’s abbot told the state-run Athens-Macedonian News Agency. “The flames are 30 to 40 metres high inside the pine forest and have encircled the monastery. We’re choking on the smoke. It’s a nightmare.”

‘The Destruction Is Incalculable’

Burned chairs and tables inside a partially burned down tavern in Varybombi. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images) Burned chairs and tables inside a partially burned down tavern in Varybombi. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images)

Volunteers raced to rescue more than 250 horses from riding facilities in the Athens suburb of Varibobi, while residents report horses and other livestock running in the streets after their barn and stable doors were thrown open to give them a chance to escape the fires. The government also authorised the transfer of “thousands” of historic artifacts from the Tatoi Royal Palace, the former estate of the Greek royal family, on Tuesday night to protect them from the nearby wildfires.

“The destruction is incalculable,” Spyros Vrettos, the mayor of the suburb of Acharnes, told local television on Wednesday morning. “There’s cinders and ash everywhere, it’s terrible. Dozens of hectares of pine forest have been razed, dozens of houses have been completely destroyed.”

The Heat and Wildfire Crisis Extends Beyond Greece

Flames burn inside a house during a wildfire in Adames area. (Photo: Michael Varaklas, AP) Flames burn inside a house during a wildfire in Adames area. (Photo: Michael Varaklas, AP)

The disaster in Greece is part of a larger crisis unfolding across countries in the Mediterranean, which have been experiencing extreme heat, prolonged drought, and raging wildfires, all hallmarks of the climate crisis. Heat warnings have been issued in a number of countries in southern Europe, and the European Union on Tuesday said it would send firefighting assistance to Greece and other countries in the region fighting wildfires, including Italy, Albania, and North Macedonia.

Turkey is also experiencing devastating wildfires for the seventh straight day this week. Ground temperatures in parts of Greece and Turkey reached more than 53 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, and parts of the country have consistently logged air temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius in recent days.

The Mediterranean Is a ‘Wildfire Hotspot’

Burned cars in Varybombi. (Photo: Louise Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images) Burned cars in Varybombi. (Photo: Louise Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images)

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, part of the European Union’s Earth Observation Program, said Wednesday that the wildfire activity in the eastern Mediterranean region is at a ferocity never observed before. The agency labelled the region a “wildfire hotspot.” In particular, the fires in Turkey have made the daily fire radiative power, a method of measuring biomass burned, reach “unprecedented values in the entire dataset,” which goes back to 2003.

“In Turkey and southern Italy, CAMS data shows the emissions and intensity of wildfires are rapidly increasing, and countries like Morocco, Albania, Greece, North Macedonia, and Lebanon are also affected,” the organisation said in a news release, while also warning of increased air pollution from the fires.

Climate Change Is a Major Factor

Forest burns in the area of Dekeleia near Athens, during a heatwave across the eastern Mediterranean on Aug. 3, 2021 (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images) Forest burns in the area of Dekeleia near Athens, during a heatwave across the eastern Mediterranean on Aug. 3, 2021 (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP, Getty Images)

It’s impossible to talk about any heat wave nowadays without mentioning the climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels has raised carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to dangerous levels, increasing the odds of extreme heat. That in turn is priming forests for large wildfires, a situation we’ve seen play out with increasing regularity. Greece itself was hit with deadly fires in 2018.

It’s not just the heat that climate change is making worse either. A 2016 study found that climate change also worsened a decade-plus drought that hit the eastern Mediterranean from 1998 to 2012. The Mediterranean as a whole is also expected to continue drying out in the coming decades, making a bad situation even more dire.

“The Mediterranean is one of the areas that is unanimously projected [in climate models] as going to dry in the future [due to man-made climate change],” Yochanan Kushnir, a climate scientist at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory not involved in the research, said at the time the 2016 research was published.